Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight at the Sherman Playhouse
When a beleaguered spouse exclaims, “My husband is driving me crazy,” the complaint is usually a metaphor for marital impatience stretched to the max. In Patrick Hamilton’s drama, it is for real. The play is about a husband, Jack Manningham, who schemes to convince his wife, Bella, she is seriously unhinged. He almost succeeds, until a police official, Sergeant Rough, arrives on the scene to straighten things out. He convinces Bella she has been victimized by a sadistic spouse with his own conniving agenda for so abusing her.
Gaslight is a quintessential Victorian melodrama, authored by playwright Hamilton in 1938. While it has been rarely revived on stage since its halcyon days of popularity in the early 40s (it ran for 1295 performances on Broadway), it is mainly remembered because of its adaptation as a 1944 film noir with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Before that, there was a 1940 film starring Anton Walbrook (the impresario Lermontov in The Red Shoes and the raconteur in Max Ophul’s La Ronde).
Gaslight made a fortune for the playwright, and Patrick Hamilton’s preference for creepy story lines, was not confined to Gaslight. He also authored the play upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope was based. In this drama, inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb trial, two psychopaths hold a dinner party around a chest into which they have stuffed the corpse of a person they just murdered. In Hangover Square, a mentally unbalanced anti-hero develops murderous designs on a trollop who exploits and then spurns him.
We need not go far in explaining the playwright’s dark imagination. His life was not one that would naturally inspire happy dramatic themes. Hamilton’s father was an alcoholic philanderer whose first wife was a prostitute. She subsequently threw herself under a train. His mother also committed suicide. Twice married, he likewise fell in love with a lady of the night in 1927. He, like his father, was plagued with alcoholism, and was permanently disabled after being struck down in the street by a drunken driver. The hand dealt him by life was not a pleasant one.
All of which is beside the point when staging Gaslight, a drama that offers possibilities for contrasting directorial slants. One of these might be to extend the duration of that time in which an audience becomes aware of the nefarious intentions of Jack. Some tinkering with the script could delay recognition of Jack’s machinations to drive his wife over the edge. In this approach, the clarity about what is really happening is postponed until the scenario becomes crystal clear. Up to that point, confusion about it might contrast with a dawning recognition of intent.
In director John Taylor’s approach, Jack’s evil manipulation of Bella is obvious from the outset. Steve Manzino as Mr. Manningham was quite successful in communicating base motive from the outset. Surprisingly, this was true even as the curtain went up, when the actor could only be heard, hidden as he was behind a couch on which he reclines.
In the Gaslight script, tension is built up over the ways its two central characters relate to each other. Jack tortures his wife with innuendos about the meaning of her supposed forgetfulness and disappearing or misplaced items around the home. Of course, this is all artificially orchestrated by Jack, although he convinces Bella she is teetering on the edge of the same kind of insanity that cursed her mother. Vicki J. Sosbe radiated Bella’s vulnerability quite well, and she had the audience likewise caught up in the nerve-wracking ordeal of dealing with her husband’s undermining any residual self-esteem she harbored .
Gaslight inevitably suffuses the ongoing action with a claustrophobic ambience, an atmosphere that hovers over the action. The Victorian flavor of things is also reinforced by the plight of its heroine: a put-upon woman in a society that is sexually, as well as socially, stratified. Feminists—hopefully, a larger majority of us these days—will experience squeamishness over Jack’s treatment of his wife for reasons other than merely felonious intent.
The atmosphere in Gaslight is unrelieved even by the arrival of Sgt. Rough, (played by Viv Berger). He reassuringly offers Bella the kind of support she sorely needs. Mr. Berger was effective in communicating the officer’s kinder side, while still experiencing anxiety about being detected by Jack before getting the goods on the cad.
If only to cement his reassuring role with the terrified Bella, Rough breaks out an eleventh hour solace his official mind can manufacture in a pinch: a whiskey bottle and two glasses. However earthy in character, the gesture is a comforting one for her. At the end of the play, Jack gets his comeuppance, but not before Bella has an opportunity to give the doctor a taste of his long overdue medicine.
Director John Taylor did a credible job of creating the flavor of a bygone era with his performers. He also appears as one of the two policemen who, were it not for their grimly official duties in Gaslight, might have doubled as constabulary in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
Katya Collazo (the Playhouse’s Salomé) was the infuriatingly seductive household maid, Nancy, who had an agenda all her own. Sheila Echevarria as Elizabeth, the other maid, depicted the epitome of anxious sanity getting out from under Jack’s intolerant thumb.
Leif Smith’s Scenic design was a thing of Victorian beauty, as was Peter Petrino’s lighting (with a special emphasis on the brightening and dimming of several gaslights in the Manningham home).
Gaslight opened at the Sherman Playhouse on September 18th, and continues on consecutive Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 PM. There is a Sunday matinee, September 27th at 3:00 PM. Reservations can be made by calling the box office at 860.354.3622 or online at www.shermanplayers.org.